Sustainable Development Solutions

Start with assessing the risk to your own property/community.

Climate impact spans far beyond coastal areas.

Sustainability, resiliency, climate change, sea level rise, adaptation, infrastructure, hardening the system, storm events, frequent flooding, global warming, heat islands, drought, wildfires: 21st century life can be overwhelming.

People strolling and sitting at tables along the Hoboken Waterfront walkway, NJ

Courtesy of City of Hoboken, N.J.

The alphabet soup of scientific phrases can be off-putting and the doom and disaster predictions can encourage one to put down the antennas and let someone else worry about the issues.

Unfortunately, the impact of climate change — whether measured by danger to humans or negative impact on the economy in the tens of billions — cannot be ignored.

The issue is not limited to the coastal southeast, desert southwest or wildfire-prone west coast. Hurricanes landing farther north, snow bomb cyclones crushing the entire northeast, shoreline erosion and flooding along the Great Lakes, deadly power outages in Texas and other climate change-driven events make this a national problem.

The impact of climate change cannot be ignored.

Scientists, insurers, planners, economists, researchers, developers, think tanks, government agencies and professional associations — sometimes at odds over policy — are largely on the same page on climate change. The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® shined a light on the impact on residential and commercial property during its Sustainability Summit in December 2021.

Adam Smith, of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, spoke at the summit. He encouraged individual homebuyers, sellers, builders and community leaders to understand the risk to their individual properties and the communities they live in.

“To counter the growing risk of flooding there is a proliferation of public- and private-sector research tools that can help pinpoint current and projected future flood risk. These tools are also at increasingly finer scales and many are free to help inform decisions and investments moving forward,” he said.

“2021 was another year in a series of years where we had a high frequency, high cost, and large diversity of extreme events that affect people’s lives and livelihoods. It is concerning because it hints that the high activity of recent years is becoming the new normal. However, we can reduce our exposure and vulnerabilities to some aspects of these extreme events with forethought and planning,” Smith said.

Adaptation can cost billions, but doing nothing comes at a much more staggering cost.

Smith acknowledges that adaptation investments in the billions can be intimidating both for taxpayers and the elected/appointed officials who spend their revenue. But doing nothing comes at a much more staggering cost.

“Studying where to raise and harden coastal infrastructure is an investment that will likely pay future dividends to the communities who benefit from such investments,” he said. “In addition to Miami’s efforts, other cities including New York and Boston are working to elevate and harden coastal infrastructure to storms and sea level rise.”

Smith said it’s plausible that climate change may affect growth patterns in areas that are repeatedly impacted by costly events such as flooding or wildfires.

Infographic: US 2021 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters

Courtesy of NOAA

Chart: US 1980-2021 billion-dollar disaster event cost

Courtesy of NOAA

“It’s important to know that the number and cost of weather and climate disasters are increasing in the United States due to a combination of increased exposure [more assets at risk], vulnerability [where we build, how we build], and that climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters,” he said. “A lot of development has taken place in vulnerable areas along the coasts, the wildland urban interface or in river floodplains. Vulnerability is especially high where building codes are insufficient for reducing damage from extreme events. Better understanding of the risks for weather and climate-influenced hazards is becoming increasingly important.”

Better understanding of extreme weather hazards is important.

Smith said one silver lining from the extremes of 2021 was that large-scale, years-long flood mitigation investment was tested and did well. The $15-billion levee and pumping system that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built around New Orleans was tested by Hurricane Ida, and the city fared better than areas outside it with older levees and no mitigation infrastructure.

“California recently decided to invest heavily in hardening its power grid to mitigate wildfire impacts. This is an investment that will almost certainly pay off in the years ahead given the increased intensity of wildfire seasons,” he said. “The Texas power grid issues from the mid-February 2021 cold wave was also an example where additional resilience of the power system would have saved billions of dollars in damage.

Whether it is learning the information needed to urge public officials to invest in resiliency, or simply finding out what the risks are to your individual property — and which combination of insurance and construction can mitigate a huge loss — individuals need data.

Redfin, the national real estate brokerage with a huge online presence that allows homeowners to get an estimate of exactly what their home is worth, while accessing tons of other free data, has added climate risk information to its home listings.

The feature, powered by ClimateCheck, displays the risk of flood, heat, fire, drought and storms by individual address, zip code and city. A Redfin report found nearly 50 percent who plan to move in the next year are relocating because of extreme temperatures or natural disasters and 80 percent of those surveyed are hesitant to buy a home in places with increased natural disasters.

Realtors Property Resource® (RPR®) a nationwide, property database available only to members of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, delivers parcel-level data to REALTORS® to share with their clients and customers, assisting them in the process of buying, selling or leasing of both residential and commercial real estate. RPR recently announced a partnership to provide REALTORS® with access to the ClimateCheck platform, which started mid-April 2022. Jeff Young, CEO and general manager of RPR, says RPR is adding this layer of information for REALTORS® to identify climate risks and be able to suggest simple ways to adapt properties so they are more resilient to extreme weather hazards.

The First Street Foundation has compiled invaluable data to create — a powerful free tool for folks to see historic, present and future risks to the home, business, farm, etc.

“Imagine being able to access data that used to cost a small fortune for big companies. Now people can access state of the art flood model information for free at FloodFactor,” said Jeremy Porter, chief research officer of the nonprofit. “We built a model partnering with more than 80 universities and experts looking at storm surge, tidal flooding, precipitation and riverine flooding.”

Porter said FEMA flood hazard maps help flood plain managers and planners, but they don’t take individual property risk — from multiple impacts of climate change — into account.

“For most, a home is the largest purchase in their life, so we developed crucial information at a property level and made it publicly accessible,” said Porter, noting that First Street has partnered with to share information.

“We are saying ‘don’t worry about 2100, this is happening now,’” he said. “There are historic signals now: tidal flooding and 100-year storms are happening more frequently, there’s more water in the streets and property values aren’t appreciating in some flood-prone areas.”

Porter is aware that climate science, predictions of doom and the high cost of addressing it can tempt many to bury their head in the sand. So, First Street and its partnerships aim to make science more accessible and digestible.

Climate impact is applicable across the country and there is risk to residential and commercial real estate.

“Our primary mission is making this data available to people who don’t have access to these resources,” he said. “Climate impact is applicable across the country and there is risk to residential and commercial real estate and the communities they are in.”

Porter said FloodFactor can help individuals to demand that their communities do not build in places that are not safe. He noted many cities and counties have not dedicated resources to analyze flooding data so they can plan for resiliency.

“Even if your home is relatively safe, if your power station is at risk, if your government buildings and facilities are at risk, your community may not be sustainable,” he said. “This can impact your tax base, supply chain, access to essential goods and the ability to recruit employees and employers.”

Tom Larsen, senior director of Content Strategy at CoreLogic Inc., participated in the NAR climate summit. CoreLogic provides proprietary information to clients. He noted there are more than 120 million homes in the United States and all need to be more aware of the risk of climate change and what sustainability practices can protect them.

“There are two levels of risk. Risk today and what that analysis projects — the incremental risk in the near future,” he said. “Risk varies block by block and varies whether you are on low ground, near a canal, river, or lake. Miami is at ground zero with flooding and California has increased risk from wildfires, but the risk is increasing everywhere. In Ohio, you have spring floods, more severe storms, more ice forming dams in rivers — that can put many more at risk.”

Larsen noted skyrocketing insurance rates in Florida (due to storms and flooding) and in California (due to wildfires). He said data can help property owners to perform a sound cost-benefit analysis.

Compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development helps a community to be resilient against flooding and storms.

“Should I elevate my home? Should I move away? Should I vote for city bonds to elevate levies, to harden infrastructure? This helps shift climate change discussion from the emotional to the ‘what’s the cost of no action vs. the cost of action?’” he said. “We can work for better building codes, micro levies, growth patterns. Analytics can help put climate science into the balance sheet — there’s a big loss coming from climate change, so how do we reduce that loss?”

People wallking around a public square lined up with trees

Courtesy of the U.S. Green Building Council

The Congress for New Urbanism advocates for walkable, compact, mixed-used, transit-oriented communities. An article in its Public Square online magazine summarized the environmental benefits of walkable places, adapted from the “Cities Alive” report by Arup, a multinational engineering and design firm. The sustainable/resilient benefits include: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, improving water management and urban microclimates, encouraging transportation that isn’t automobile-dependent and minimizing land use — because it is easier to focus adaptation infrastructure on compact development versus sprawl.

Alaska Junction bus parked at a Seattle bus stop

Courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT)

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) promotes sustainability through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green rating for everything from buildings to entire cities. The nonprofit’s LEED for Cities program encourages sustainable and resilient communities.

Hilari Varnadore, vice president for Cities, heads the USGBC’s efforts to certify entire cities, or counties, as LEED rated. More than 160 U.S. cities have qualified and one dozen international cities have gone through the process.

“We require local governments to collect performance indicators: median household income, educational attainment, many other factors. They feed that and other data to see how they are doing. Then they analyze the socioeconomic data and map it out,” she said. “On a map it’s so obvious to see disparity and disinvestment.”

Varnadore said Orange County, Fla., which includes Orlando, has done an excellent job of color coding its areas of need. She said the coding helps prioritize everything from economic intervention to infrastructure spending to focusing on climate adaptation in vulnerable areas.

“The countywide or citywide report identifies strengths and weaknesses. It helps steer land-use policy. Compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development helps a community to be resilient against flooding and storms,” she said. “The LEED city accreditation process encourages reclaiming brownfields and measuring the energy performance of buildings — which can make a city more sustainable while addressing inequity.”

David Abell, senior manager, LEED for Cities at USGBC, said climate response can be as simple as adding more street trees and adding shaded bus shelters to make transit use more comfortable in extreme heat. He noted that Miami-Dade County, which has LEED Cities Gold certification, has a full-time heat officer to address issues in an area where the number of extreme heat days increases each year.

“The southwest is an area looking at heat,” he said. “One thing I’ve seen is a lot more urban tree master plans. In Phoenix [a LEED certified city,] they are planning a tree/ shade inventory. Cities are investing in sidewalks, shelters, connectivity — things people need to get to transit.”

Abell said Louisville, Ky., has worked with the National Institutes of Health to study how greenspace improves public health. The Green Heart Louisville initiative, also supported by The Nature Conservancy, looks at trees as medicine.

Varnadore said the LEED for Cities program allows diverse cities and counties to share best practices for mitigating heat, flooding, storms and related climate issues while also tackling issues of socioeconomic and other inequalities.

“Houston and Billings, Mont., are very different places with different climates and population scales, but they are in the same group with each other,” she said, noting that winning sustainable land-use, growth and building policies are exportable.

“In Hoboken, N.J., they came in on our pilot program and did major resilience work to mitigate flooding and storms. They redid their waterfront. On the surface, it looks like parks and a beautiful urban space. Beneath that is an amazing level of infrastructure to maintain their housing, commercial and viability against climate change.”

To become LEED certified, cities must assess their green and gray infrastructure and their relationship to equity.

Abell said to become LEED certified, cities must assess their green and gray infrastructure and their relationship to equity.

“We help them mine data to ensure decisions are centered around equity. We want to ensure that communities historically left behind are addressed in all aspects of quality of life — including infrastructure investment,” he said.

Varnadore said the USBGC also wants to make sure cities are working with diverse groups — so neighborhood solutions are tailored to the needs of the residents, not a top-down approach that often fails. The steps to LEED certification also make sure cities are working collaboratively with regional nonprofits and foundations capable of leveraging dollars with grant funding.

In Miami, Landscape Architect Aida Curtis, principal of Curtis+Rogers Design Studio, has been immersed in resilient design, decades before the city became synonymous with ground zero for climate disaster — both the slow variety from sea level rise and the immediate knockout punch from the killer winds and storm surge of increasingly frequent hurricanes. She stresses that mitigation can be beautiful and practical.

After Hurricane Irma, a federally funded study proposed a 10- to 30-foot-high floodwall that would run along the Miami’s picturesque bayfront spanning from downtown Miami, south across the Miami River (with floodgates) and to the Manhattan-like Brickell Area. Curtis’ firm was hired to illustrate alternatives to what most saw as a hideous wall.

If we’re spending billions to do some climate mitigation, why not create more of the most valuable real estate in the world?

“We came up with a series of hybrid solutions, nature based — that would add living shorelines, natural breakwaters, near-shore artificial reefs, and raised seawalls. It would add 39 acres of open park land for the citizens of Miami,” she said, who also generated visuals of how bad the seawall would look — to further the argument for more equitable nature-based solutions.

Inland, Curtis’s landscape architecture and planning encourages development and other rules that truly create a sustainable network through all of Miami’s diverse communities.

“Instead of removing trees to construct — move the trees and/or build around them. Add more nature to your buildings — people in Italy are building vertical forests,” she observed. “Use more nature-based solutions for flooding: permeable parking lots, invest in the public spaces around your projects and invest in renewable energy for your building. Create wider sidewalks — permeable to store water, with the ability to support large trees to create shade.”

In Louisiana, where sea level rise is erasing land each year, relocation of entire cities is an option. In early 2021, the state Community Development Department broke ground on a 22.5-acre plot aimed at resettling people from a flood-plagued neighborhood that earned the nickname “Flood City.”

The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge reported that the small community of Pecan Acres has flooded 17 times in the past 30 years. The state earmarked about $19.4 million for the resettlement effort, funded through a mix of federal and state grants used for disaster and relocation initiatives.

“After years of planning, some 40 homeowners will have the opportunity to move to the new community that they’ve named Audubon Estates,” the Advocate reported, noting many Pecan Acres residents are low- to moderate-income and moved to the area after previously living on nearby sharecropping land.

The new town is about two miles from the oft-deluged Pecan Acres. Once all residents move from Pecan Acres, the area will be restored to a wetland that could help mitigate regional flooding.

The Advocate reported that Pecan Acres was built in the late ‘60s and ‘70s on a parish dumpsite that previously was low-lying swampland, making it vulnerable to floods. Many in the neighborhood couldn’t afford flood insurance, which is needed to obtain federal grants for flood repairs.

Retreat could be the only ultimate solution in below or barely above sea level cities.

Efforts to curb flooding in the Baton Rouge-area town by installing pumps and other measures failed. The inability of pumps and infrastructure to resolve flooding could be a canary in the coal mine warning that retreat could be the only ultimate solution in below or barely above sea level cities in Florida and Louisiana.

While some communities’ answer to resiliency will include retreat, Rutgers University-Newark Professor Jason Barr’s answer for New York is a resounding — EXPAND! The economist created quite a stir when his January 2022 New York Times Op-Ed urged incoming Mayor Eric Adams to expand Lower Manhattan substantially By reclaiming land — 1,760 acres to be exact — from New York Harbor, Barr suggests the city’s housing crisis could be answered with 250,000 new residences — a good chunk affordable. Barr, who points out that New York has a history of expanding by expanding the shoreline, even has a name for his new city tacked onto the city — New Mannahatta.

“New York started in Lower Manhattan and it expanded the shoreline many times there, from the time the British took over. Other cities are doing large infill projects. Hong Kong, suffering from housing affordability and being land constrained, is doing 2.5 times my suggestion — 1,700 hectares,” said Barr, whose vision for New Mannahatta includes absorbing Governor’s Island.

New York city has started a major climate resiliency project along Manhattan to help reduce future flood risk. “If we’re going to spend billions of dollars on this, why not create more of the most valuable real estate in the world?” Barr asked.

Barr said the value of the new land could leverage a new subway line, parks, infrastructure and most important of all — mixed-use housing with a strong percentage of it affordable. Barr has heard much “it can’t be done” skepticism and incorrect claims that the vision would end up as a giveaway to billionaires.

“Of course, I want some buildings for billionaires — that would raise the money to help subsidize the affordable housing,” he said. “But an authority would own the land and have full control of the long-term leases. That would allow large tracks devoted to middle- or low-income housing.”

When the remnants of Ida dumped heavy rain on greater New York, dozens of people lost their lives and subway lines — the lifeblood of commerce in the city — were heavily damaged by flooding. Barr said events like that will happen more often and working-class people will be cut off from jobs if dramatic action isn’t taken. He understands the cynicism toward his project, but said the time for design for action is now.

“Doing nothing is much more expensive than doing a big project,” he said. “In all climate change adaptation, we are going to be weighing the cost of inaction versus the cost of action,” Barr said.


About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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